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Immersive undergraduate education: Greenland, the Arctic and beyond

Workshop participants at the Ilulissat Icefjord (photo by local tour operator Arctic Friend).

June 4, 2019

Fifteen educators from around the world, five days, and nearly two million square kilometers of ice—these were the makings of a unique workshop organized by the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS; based in Copenhagen, Denmark) with travel to the Disko Bay region of west Greenland. The goals of gathering this group together from 27–31 May 2019 included focused discussion on involving undergraduates in research, data collection in the Arctic and how to expand community-based monitoring and citizen-science activity, as well as to connect practitioners across social science, physical science and student services. We shared experiences and ideas, and established a platform from which these new connections can lead to new efforts bridging research, education and policy-relevant writing across the Arctic and beyond.

What is immersive undergraduate education? To me, this means either immersing students in a focused topic in the classroom, immersing students in a place (especially while abroad), or combining the two through targeted lectures, informed discussions and travel. It is important to incorporate research as part of this learning, and for multi-week study-abroad courses it is valuable for students to exchange with researchers and learn what they do in the places that the class is visiting. I try to do this in my own teaching on sea-level rise, ice loss, climate change, and Arctic environmental change. It was very rewarding to have the chance to engage with other educators who have developed their own immersive-education models spanning biology, biodiversity, sustainability science, chemistry, glaciology, climate science, oceanography, biogeochemistry and archaeology—where we all recognized the cross-disciplinary nature of these topics in relation to the impacts of Arctic environmental change on all life and Arctic policy, and the role of traditional ecological knowledge in connection with research as the changes are studied and impacts are addressed.

In addition to stimulating discussions and engaging interactions, we were immersed in the inspiring surroundings of Disko Bay in west Greenland. We flew from Copenhagen, Denmark, to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, and then within Greenland took another flight to the town of Ilulissat, and explored the region by boat with an overnight stay in Qeqertarsuaq on Disko Island. This is a place of big ice, ocean life and a rich history, which are stunning in combination. The experience deepened my regard for these environments and living there, and also provided me with new ways to expand course content in my own teaching. In regards to Arctic policy, environmental change—and especially Arctic ice change—is central to life and to local-to-international decision making. This part of west Greenland is one place, but social and political actions taken here must be considered in relation to people and places across the connected Arctic system. A goal of immersive education is to empower students with knowledge and with the commitment needed to think and to act at this interface across all disciplines.

In winter quarter 2020, Nadine Fabbi and I—co-leads of the International Policy Institute Arctic initiative—will be co-teaching a Task Force on Arctic policy called “Arctic Ice: Territory, Culture, Art and Science,” which will include a six-day immersive experience in Ottawa, Canada. The Greenland workshop, in part, provided training in immersive undergraduate education that will inform the Task Force. The Task Force is the capstone course for students in the international studies major in the Jackson School of International Studies.